Last week we read that Paul left Ephesus and set out for Macedonia to visit some of the churches he had planted in that region in order to encourage the believers. He then travelled into Greece where he stayed for three months, before travelling back through Macedonia to Troas. And in Troas he brought Eutychus back from the dead.
He then left Troas and stopped in some other places. And we read that, when he reached Miletus, he sent for the elders in the church in Ephesus and asked them to come and see him. He wanted to see them one last time and to give them some final instructions.
And last week we began to look at what he said to them. So, in verses 18 to 24 he spoke about his ministry among them and how he didn’t hesitate to preach anything that would be helpful to them. Furthermore, to both Jews and Greeks, he declared that they must turn from their sins in repentance and turn in faith to Jesus Christ.
He also said that he knew he would often have to suffer for preaching God’s word, but he hoped that he would be able to finish the race and complete the task which the Lord Jesus gave to him which was to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.
Verses 25 to 27
In verse 25 he again refers to his ministry among them and this time he says that he preached the kingdom. Jesus Christ is the King who is coming again one day to judge the living and the dead; and he commands everyone everywhere to repent and believe the good news; and whoever repents and believes the good news is delivered from the Devil’s tyranny and they’re brought into the Lord’s kingdom of grace. So, Paul preached the message of Christ’s kingdom.
But look: Paul also said in verse 25 that he didn’t think he would ever see these people again. Remember? He’s planning on going to Jerusalem. And from Jerusalem he hoped to get to Rome. And therefore he doesn’t think he’ll ever be back in Ephesus.
But look what he says now in verse 26: He declares to them that he is innocent of the blood of all men. And he goes on in verse 27 to explain that he’s innocent of their blood because he did not hesitate to proclaim to them the whole will of God.
By the ‘whole will of God’ he’s probably referring to God’s plan for our salvation which involved sending his Son into the world as our Great Redeemer. And by God’s will he probably also means God’s willingness to give everlasting salvation to all who will believe in Jesus Christ. And so, Paul is reminding the Ephesian elders that he didn’t hesitate from preaching this message to them.
Why might he have hesitated? What is it about the message of salvation which might have caused him to hesitate? What is it about the message of salvation which might have caused him to shrink back from preaching the will of God for our salvation?
Well, you see, the gospel message is offensive. It’s offensive because the gospel message implies that we’re sinners who have done wrong. And people don’t like to hear that. Remember what happened to John the Baptiser? He told Herod Antipas that he was wrong for taking his brother’s wife for himself. And Herod didn’t like it. So he arrested John and eventually John was executed for telling someone that he was a sinner. People don’t like to hear that we’re sinners.
And people don’t like to hear that we can’t save ourselves. The gospel message tells us that we couldn’t save ourselves. It tells us that there’s nothing we can do ourselves and there’s nothing we can offer to God to make up for our sins. We can’t save ourselves. And so, we need to rely on Jesus Christ to save us. And people don’t like to hear that.
And people don’t like to hear that there’s only one Saviour and one way of salvation. People take offence at what we call the exclusiveness of Christianity: by which we mean that Christianity is the only true religion and there’s only one way of salvation. Think of what happened in Ephesus: when people paid attention to Paul and to his message about Jesus Christ, they stopped worshipping their false gods. They gave them up because they had come to believe that there’s only one true God and all other gods are not real. And that made Demetris and so many others in Ephesus angry.
And, of course, Paul was aware of how the Jews didn’t like his message because he preached that God was prepared to accept Gentiles as well as Jews. He was prepared to accept anyone who believed. And the Jews didn’t like that because they still thought that they, and they alone, were God’s special people.
There were lots of reasons why Paul might have hesitated from preaching the will of God for our salvation. But he didn’t hesitate. He faithfully and fearlessly preached God’s word. And we must pray that preachers today will be faithful and fearless and will not hesitate from making God’s word known.
Let’s go back to verse 26 now. Why does Paul say he’s innocent of the blood of all men? What does he mean by that? Well, I think he’s referring to a passage like Ezekiel 3 where we read this:
16 At the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: 17 ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18 When I say to a wicked person, “You will surely die,” and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 19 But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.
Do you see what God was saying to Ezekiel? He was saying that if the preacher doesn’t warn a wicked man, then God will hold the preacher accountable for not warning that person. God will say to the preacher: ‘You’re at fault here.’ But if the preacher warns a wicked man, and the wicked man doesn’t listen to the preacher, then the wicked man will be punished by God for his sins; but God will not hold the preacher responsible. God will say to the preacher: ‘You did what you were supposed to do.’
And so, in Acts 20 Paul is saying to the elders in Ephesus that God will not hold him accountable for anyone in Ephesus who has not repented from their sin. God will not blame Paul because Paul did not hesitate from making known to them God’s word and his will for their salvation. He faithfully preached God’s word. And so, if anyone did not listen to him, Paul can’t be blamed, because he faithfully discharged his duty.
Isn’t that interesting? When a preacher comes to the end of his ministry, how do we sum it up? Sometimes we assess a person’s ministry by the way the congregation increased during his ministry or by the way it declined. One preacher is deemed successful because the church grew; and another preacher is deemed unsuccessful because the church declined. The same can be said about a Sunday School teacher or some other leader in the church. We say that under his leadership, the Sunday School increased. Or we say the opposite.
But Paul puts before us another way of assessing a person’s ministry: Was this person — this preacher — faithful in declaring the will of God? Did he remain faithful even when those who heard him did not listen? If a preacher is able to say at the end of his ministry that he was faithful in preaching the will of God for our salvation then he ought to be satisfied that he has fulfilled the work God has given to him. He has faithfully discharged his duty no matter what the outcome.
And, of course, Paul’s words here remind us of the great and awful responsibility God has placed on a preacher. Did he warn sinners to repent? Did he urge them to turn from their sin and to trust in the Saviour? You see, the preacher who urged men and women and children to repent is innocent of their blood; whereas the preacher who shrank back from preaching God’s word will be accountable to God for what he has done. He must answer to God for it.
And so, you ought to pray for your preachers and for all preachers. And you ought to pray for all those who teach in our Sunday School and other organisations, asking God to help every one of them to discharge their duty faithfully and fearlessly and to make his will known.
And just one final point here: We often beat ourselves up in the church. You know, a church tries to reach out to unbelievers. It tries this and it tries that without any apparent success. And the leaders of the church run around, trying to find the silver bullet, the key to effective evangelism. And if the things we try don’t appear to work, we beat ourselves up. You know, we say to ourselves: ‘We’re not doing it right. The people aren’t listening. It’s our fault.’ But Paul’s words remind us that we’re only blameworthy if we have not been faithful in making God’s word known. Whether or not a person listens to us and responds to what we preach is outside of our control. Only God is able to open a persons’ heart. But Paul was able to say to the elders in Ephesus: ‘You know what? I’ve done my duty. I’ve made known God’s word. I can’t be held accountable for those who did not listen. They must answer to God. But I have done what God called me to do.’
Now, of course, our hearts break because people will not listen. And there’s nothing we want more than for men and women and children to repent and to receive from God the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. We long for it and we pray for it. But whether they will believe or not is outside of our control. Our responsibility, our duty before God, is to proclaim to them God’s willingness to pardon all who repent and believe.
Well, in the verses which follow, Paul goes on to warn the elders to be faithful to their duty to care for the Lord’s people in his church and to watch out for those who distort the word of the Lord. And we’ll look at those verses next week.